When Lee May ascended to the position of DeKalb CEO, he took over a county government in crisis.
May was appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal to replace suspended CEO Burrell Ellis, who had been indicted on charges that he shook down contractors for campaign contributions.
He’s also found himself targeted by special investigators, who accused him of obstruction and improperly taking a loan from a subordinate. May said the accusations were meritless, and the GBI last month declined to pursue further investigations.
Still, May announced Friday he won’t run for county CEO in the May 24 primary election.
He told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution why he plans to leave office when his term expires at the end of 2016. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
AJC: Was your potential run for office damaged by the special investigators’ report or other scandals in the news?
Lee May: No, absolutely not. As a matter of fact, I shared with my wife the other day that I felt a little too confident that, in an election, I would run and win.
Even with the realities we are in, we still accomplished a lot of things. We put forth the first tax cut in over a decade. Our bond rating has improved. Our budgetary reserves are very healthier — healthier than they have been in years. I always say the measure of how well an elected official is doing in government is how well they’re handling the finances, and I think we have a good story to tell where that’s concerned. We hired more police officers and firefighters over these past 2½ years than in any other period in recent history.
AJC: The special investigation did attack you. But that wasn’t the reason you made this decision?
May: Absolutely not. As a matter of fact, I would suggest that the GBI letter to the governor shows that the attacks made through that report were shown to be ones that didn’t need to be investigated further. That served as a level of vindication for me. It was an unfortunate situation of how that progressed. Remember, I called for the special investigation, and unfortunately the individuals that were investigating for us took a different tack, but that had no influence on my decision.
AJC: But wasn’t it stressful to have to deal with the fallout, the constant questions and attention?
May: That’s a fair question. It was a trying time. No one wants to see your name plastered in the paper. And unfortunately, the negative stuff plasters the paper. And when certain things are on the positive side, they didn’t get the same play in the media unfortunately. It’s been challenging, but I would suggest that, in any executive role, you’re going to have challenging times. This is politics. Because we are DeKalb, we see more focus on any issue that goes on. But ultimately, the decision I’m making is one that my wife and I have made, not feeling pressure from anyone. It’s really about our next level in life.
AJC: What is that next level?
May: I’m a son of a preacher. I’ve been licensed and ordained as a minister. I have my Master of Divinity degree from Emory University Candler School of Theology. I’m very passionate about ministry. So, in our future endeavors, you’ll see a more active role in ministry.
AJC: Is that through your current church (Berean Christian Church)?
May: We have decisions to make. We have a wonderful pastor. Ultimately, I feel called to pastor, and really that’s all about timing where I can be taking steps to pursue that.
AJC: Do you have any regrets?
May: The one regret I would say — and we still have time — but I would have hoped that over the past 2½ years we could have done more bringing people together. I’m a big advocate for that, not just on the Board of Commissioners but also with other elected officials, constitutional officers, legislators, senators, representatives and community leaders. You’ve seen divisions — party line divisions, racial divisions, geographical divisions as well. That’s one of the things I hope to work proactively to bring people together. Hopefully, I’ll be even more uniquely positioned now that politics is removed a little bit because I’m not running.
AJC: Are you supporting any of the potential candidates for CEO?
May: I will say this: A particular individual, (former DeKalb schools Superintendent) Michael Thurmond, is interested in it. He’s an individual I could be very supportive of in this role. He did a phenomenal job in the school system, which just had its full accreditation restored with no conditions. A lion’s share of that was because of his work as superintendent. We’ll see if he’ll take on the challenge. He hasn’t committed anything as of yet to me. But if he does, I’ll be anxious to help in any way that I can.
AJC: Is the special purpose local option sales tax on November’s ballot your top priority?
May: SPLOST is one of our big priorities. That’s going to generate close to $100 million annually countywide for infrastructure and capital projects. There’s been a lot of conversation about the eastward expansion of MARTA rail. I’m very much in support of that concept. As for the funding, I’m excited that we’re at least having the conversation, so we’ll figure that out. We’ll have an opportunity now to give our employees a substantive adjustment in their pay and compensation. I think they deserve it. We need to set a strong foundation for the next leader to move forward.